On Darkness in YA Literature

By now most of you have read the Wall Street Journal article that appeared on June 4th called “Darkness Too Visible” by Meghan Cox Gurdon, which decried the dark themes in today’s YA literature. After it came out, the Internet erupted with responses, including over 15,000 tweets and many blogs posts and articles from YA authors and others in the writing/publishing community. (Nathan Bransford gave some good links.) All of this happened when I was on vacation and blissfully unaware, but now I’ve read the article, dozens of the tweets and a handful of the posts and I do have something to say.

Let’s cut the “bulldozing” language
I would never presume to jump to the defense of the entire publishing industry, as that’s not my job. Yet I also don’t appreciate sweeping generalizations about a publishing industry that according to Ms. Cox Gurdon, supposedly tries to “bulldoze coarseness or misery” into our children’s lives. Nobody is bulldozing anything. Writers are writing, publishers are publishing, and readers are making their choices and buying. Nobody is forcing us to read anything we don’t want to read. There are plenty of choices: thousands of books being currently published, and libraries full of millions of books published in years past. We all have to make our choices and stop acting like publishing is forcing something down our throats.

The roles of art and mass media
Does art reflect the culture? Or does it create the culture? Same questions with mass media (which includes books). Reflect or create? Obviously there’s a reciprocal relationship, with books, movies and TV shows both reflecting public taste and determining it. So it’s a little disingenuous to only focus on the idea that these “dark” themes in books will infiltrate kids’ minds and create darkness where none existed before. There is a reason for so much darkness in YA literature and it’s this: our kids are growing up in a world that contains considerable darkness. Writers and publishers are not creating it out of thin air—it’s coming from the hearts and minds of people, real people, many of whom have struggled through dark times themselves. To accuse writers and publishers of doing all of this strictly out of some evil profit motive is to totally deny the reality the exists behind the dark YA books: the darkness in many teens’ lives.

The role of the parent
As the mother of two adolescent girls, I take care to help them choose strong, well-written fiction that suits their interests, taking into account each of their individual needs and personalities. I don’t censor and I’ve never said, “No, you can’t read this book.” When books include dark or difficult themes (some of my daughters’ recent choices have included a novel about cutting and a true account of the Columbine massacre) I use it as an opportunity to engage in conversation, hear their thoughts on these topics, and help them process when necessary.

And yes, like Ms. Cox Gurdon, I’m a little leery of some of the darkest of the YA themes out there—not because I’m afraid the evil publishing lords are trying to bulldoze into my kids’ lives, and not because I think it shouldn’t exist—but because I know my kids. I know their hearts, I’m pretty aware of the kinds of themes they can deal with and those they’re not ready for. So I approach the shelves with discernment, and I am teaching my kids discernment, too. We have conversations about how the input we allow into our minds deeply affects who we are and who we become. When it comes to TV, music, or books, we discuss making wise choices.

Will there come a day when they want to read something I find objectionable? Undoubtedly. It’s my job as a parent to figure out what to do in that situation—whether to dictate or negotiate or simply let it be. I accept this responsibility; and while there are many books I wouldn’t deem appropriate for my own kids (at their current ages) I accept that these books exist, that their writers have the right to express these stories, and that these books may be appropriate for some kids even if they’re not for mine.

What about a rating system?
I do find it curious that we kind of freak out when someone suggests warning labels or rating systems or other such mechanisms to help parents choose material that’s appropriate for their own kids. After all, the motion picture industry has had this in place for decades and nobody bats an eyelash. Since “YA” can cover ages from as young as 12 to as old as 17 (a ridiculous range) I do think it would be helpful to have some kind of maturity rating on teen books. This is especially true since teens mature at different rates and have individual emotional/psychological makeups that determine their readiness and ability to handle more mature themes. I can’t see anything like this really happening, but as a parent, I can tell you, it takes a lot of work to help my kids choose appropriate books and I appreciate all the help I can get! If all YA books were marked something like, “Best for age 12-13” or “14-15” or “16-17” I think that would go a long way toward helping parents and teachers choose amongst the vast quantities of YA books out there.

I think the review by Ms. Cox Gurdon has some nuggets of truth and good intentions but went terribly awry and sounded (a) hysterical, (b) ignorant of the dark realities for many teens who find solace in dark YA fiction, and (c) accusatory toward the publishing industry.

But that’s just me. What do you think?

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© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Shelby on November 28, 2012 at 4:23 PM

    Great post, Rachelle! I completely agree with you- Gurdon’s view on the topic is a little extreme, but I do think that a rating system would be incredibly helpful. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hiya on September 11, 2012 at 2:14 PM

  3. Katherine Traylor on August 18, 2012 at 5:06 PM

    I can only speak for myself, but writing is a kind of exorcism for me. I’m pretty sure I’m writing YA right now because only now (at the age of 28) have I processed the mental and emotional places I was in as a teenager. Maybe in another ten to fifteen years, I’ll write about being 28. It’s surprising, sometimes, to think about teenagers reading my book–because while it is definitely a YA book (a coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old girl, with elements of romantic and sexual awakening), it’s also…my book. The book that’s in me. The only book I can write right now, given who and where I am and what I’ve experienced so far. If that tends to be a bit dark…well, teenagers go into dark places sometimes, you know?

    I would probably agree with you on a rating/warning system, though. I’d feel a little odd about offering my story to a 13-year-old, though I’m sure it will be read by some 13-year-olds if it gets published. Though I don’t know–I was about to say that you wouldn’t offer The Hunger Games to an 8-year-old, but I’m sure a lot of 8-year-olds have read it. And the Hollywood rating system definitely has a lot of flaws–forcible sex can be R-rated, but pleasurable sex tends towards X–that’s kind of wrong, isn’t it? You’d have to be very careful with it.

  4. Hauk IT - Web Consulting on October 2, 2011 at 8:12 PM

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  5. Jason Karge on August 31, 2011 at 12:31 AM

    i found your website on reddit and also thought i might can be found in this will let you look. interesting notion you have however could have a couple of other folks p oker you have an interest. they might help or may well not however its well worth a go.

  6. […] Rachelle Gardner discussed the issue from the viewpoint of a parent who also has insight into the publishing industry.  As she pointed […]

  7. […] Journal attacks the darkness in YA (you can read Maureen Johnson’s Guardian article and Rachelle Gardner’s response here) and you can read more on Nathan Bransford’s fantastic weekly wrap. (And speaking of Maureen, […]

  8. […] On Darkness in YA Literature […]

  9. […] On Darkness in YA Literature […]

  10. Sydnee on June 16, 2011 at 11:16 PM

    I definitely agree with every point you made, and I especially appreciated the part where you emphasized that you didn’t advocate censorship, and while you didn’t want your kids reading certain books you acknowledged that those same books might be the right choice for someone else’s kids. I think the biggest problem I had with Ms Gurdon’s article was the fact that she assumed the books were unsuitable for -everyone-.

  11. Erica Olson on June 16, 2011 at 8:22 PM

    This was a great take on the article and I agree with you 100% (with the caveat that I have two sons instead of daughters!). I have nothing ata ll against a rating system similar to games and movies. I’ve heard the argument that then kids will find the inappropriate books even more easily, but I’m not falling for it. Kids know what they like and as parents, we absolutely have the right to know what that is.

    I read a blog post title (no, I didn’t link to it) recently that said kids who let their parents know what they read should grow up and parents who need to know what their kids read should shut up. I was very sad about that – I love the discussion. When my then-8-year-old read The Deathly Hallows, I read ahead of him, in case he wanted to discuss it. He amazed me with his maturity of the subject matter and I look forward to reading more of the same books.

  12. readgreatfiction on June 15, 2011 at 4:42 PM

    >I was looking at some YA books today that were about 15 years old, and found myself thinking that what passed as YA then, is equal to the stuff my 7 year old wants to read today. I often find myself telling my almost 15 year old "no" to YA books and yes to adult novels.


  13. kristen on June 15, 2011 at 4:26 PM

    >While this might be oversimplifying it, as writers, darkness is where we get conflict. If there's no darkness, we have no story. How much story would Lord of the Rings trilogy have if you took out Sauron? At best, it'd be a bunch of random creatures going for a meaningless walk. At worst, it wouldn't have been written at all.

    The more I live the more I am aware of the darkness in this world. But in the real world, as in the fiction world, goodness and niceness win over badness. It gives us hope that while evil is around, it can be triumphantly overcome.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Rachelle.

  14. Anonymous on June 15, 2011 at 2:21 PM

    >We are constantly being reminded that publishing is a business. It would be naive to think publishers don't want dark shock value. It sells. I agree that a rating system would be a fantastic help for parents.

  15. DiscoverMe on June 14, 2011 at 3:11 PM

    >Thank you for this post. The most important thing that you highlighted was the need for discussion between parents and children about what they are reading and about what they choose to read. My parents pretty much gave me free reign on what I read, but I have fairly open-minded parents and nothing was ever off limits. If I had a question about anything (from cutting to rape, from prom to politics) they'd answer it. I don't know that the "darkness" of YA novels de-sensitizes children/teens to anything more than newspapers or new shows do. What I do know is that it is up to the parent to impress upon the child the gravity of each and every dark thing that people face in their lives. That's not the job of a publisher or a writer. It us up the parent to raise the child. Period.

  16. Larry Carney on June 14, 2011 at 2:25 PM

    >There are writers who simply prefer crafting stories that do not deal with characters who cut themselves, know violence at home, live in economically depressed areas (to put it politely) and face more horrors before they are twelve than some people face in their entire life.

    There is nothing wrong with writers like that. They have their audience.

    There is also nothing wrong with writers who want to reach the kids who would never pick up a book with rainbows and unicorns on the cover, you know? Those who show the darkness, but also the Light out of it.

  17. laurabrady on June 14, 2011 at 12:46 PM

    >I just returned from a trip to the library empty handed. I wanted a legal thriller mystery for my newly-minted 13 year old ds. Of course, there weren't any. Only John Grisham is publishing for that age range. So, I tried looking for mystery books. Books that don't involve drugs, dysfunctional families, girls who cut, sex, etc. I just wanted a good story for my son. Several reference librarians tried to help me. We came up empty handed. I found a couple on Amazon, which I will order, but it's amazing how hard it is to find good stories that aren't riddled with the depressing stories that some, but not ALL, teens find themselves dealing with. A normal, happy go lucky kid, will have a hard time finding stories w/normal, happy go lucky protagonists.


  18. Tamara Kaufman on June 14, 2011 at 10:05 AM

    >I thought your response was very well articulated. As our children continue to have more and more exposure to media before parents can even have a chance to screen it, it is important for our children to learn the tools of discernment for themselves.
    Thank you for the great article to link to.

  19. Fiction Chick on June 14, 2011 at 9:05 AM

    >Rachelle – I recently posted on this subject on my own blog, and I said nearly the exact same thing as you. I DO believe that #YAsaves, and I DO NOT believe in censorship of books under any circumstances. However, I think a rating system would be fabulous and extremely helpful. After all, what is appropriate for an 18-yr-old is not necessarily right for a 13-yr-old. There should be a fairly simple way for readers to discern between books even if they just pop by the bookstore for a gift.

  20. Sharon A. Lavy on June 14, 2011 at 7:02 AM

    >Most writers want to offer hope to the world. We have to be willing to touch on dark subjects to offer hope.

  21. patti.mallett_pp on June 14, 2011 at 6:56 AM

    >Great post, Rachelle! Thanks for tackling this issue. I wish I had been more like you when I was a parent, for I let FEAR get the best of me. I was so afraid of music and movies and books, wanted to protect my kids from everything. Now, I know they were experiencing all of that inside themselves already. Kids aren’t deaf and blind. They see everything going on around them, and things we barely pay attention to are keeping them up at night (like Mom and Dad’s latest argument, or why their best friend isn’t eating or cutting herself or smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, etc.). I didn’t know my daughter was reading Judy Blume at a young age, nor do I know what I would have thought about that, but recently she told me she didn’t know what she would have gotten through those years without Judy’s books. (And we know Judy gets slammed.) I read a lot of YA novels. I think it’s some of the best stuff out there today. And, yes, I am discerning in picking what I read, and it’s almost always Contemporary Fiction, for the older set. As a writer, one of my struggles is learning “how far into the dark” I can write. And, then, shutting out my friend’s voices that would condemn me for doing so. (It ain’t easy being a writer!) I just read one of the most perfect books (for me) that I’ve read in a long time: “Before I Die” by Jenny Downham (YA). I posted my reactions on FB, yet wondered what some of my friends would think if they read it. (It was probably a bit of an attempt at warning them that I have become more open-minded about YA themes.)Kids need to know they aren’t crazy, that the same things running through their heads are in someone else’s head. (See that, at least, they are not alone.) In the books I read, which are the kind I want and hope and am trying to write, there is always something hopeful at the end. A person without hope that things can change has no business writing FOR ANY AGE AUDIENCE. (And, fortunately, most agents and publishers agree.)I would like to read a few of the books mentioned in that “blasting” article, because we do need to know what is out there.Sorry this got so long, but it’s a heavy topic, one we all feel strongly about, and are trying to come to terms with.I know that every person who comments on this site wants to write something that will give readers “a hand up.” We wish every book would do that. And, we work to perfect our own “offering to the masses.” Isn’t that our best shot at making a difference, one book at a time?

  22. sally apokedak on June 13, 2011 at 10:38 PM

    >Good post. I sympathize with Gurdon, but I thought her essay was inflammatory, and the thing that bothered me most was the bulldozing accusation. It painted a motive that I haven’t seen in any of the publishing people I’ve met.

  23. HopefulLeigh on June 13, 2011 at 7:23 PM

    >I must have been living under a rock because I hadn’t heard about this article. You make excellent points. Kids these days are way more aware and exposed to more than I ever was at their age. Today’s YA reflects this theme. Does it go too far at times? Sure, but so does “grown-up” lit. Parents can and should empower their children to make wise reading decisions and talk through the difficult topics, just as you’re doing with your own children.

  24. Jenni Wiltz on June 13, 2011 at 7:05 PM

    >Great post, Rachelle! I agree that it’s a parent’s job to monitor what their kids read, to the extent it’s possible.I also agree that some kind of basic rating system would be helpful, as is applied to movies and video games. My mother is the librarian at a middle school and she buys books based on a short blurb and maybe a cover image. She brought home every single new book that was meant for her library and read it cover to cover to make sure the sex or violence wasn’t too graphic. A basic rating system–maybe even something with single-letter tags like TV ratings have for sexual innuendo, violence, etc–would have really helped her target books to the age group she was buying for. After all, it’s not just parents and children who are buying these books. They go in school libraries, too.

  25. Stef Kramer on June 13, 2011 at 6:10 PM

    >For a parent to walk into a B&N and pass judgement by reading a book sleeve or reviewing cover art is a bit whimsical. I was hesitant before reading The Hunger Games myself, knowing the premise. And even wondered if my daughter would understand the political implications. Guess what? We ended up having great and robust dialogue. Undoubtedly parents instinctually want to protect their children from the evils of the world, and I believe this was was Ms. Gurdon’s platform. Her diatribe was obviously coming from a place of love – not a bad place to start.

  26. Rebecca LuElla Miller on June 13, 2011 at 4:13 PM

    >Ironic, Rachelle. I wrote two blog posts on that article, one called “Reflecting Or Influencing Culture” and the other “The Problem With Broad Brushes,” so apparently we were struck by some of the same things. I think I liked the article over all more than you did, though.I’m not for a rating system. I think that fosters that artificial “safe fiction” mentality and causes readers to rely on someone else’s opinion rather than doing due diligence and discerning for themselves what is or is not something they should read. Yes, I’m sure it’s hard work for parents to keep up, but I don’t know that parenting is easy in any of its other aspects either. Becky

  27. The Pen and Ink Blog on June 13, 2011 at 3:38 PM

    >I read the article. Of course YA addresses a broad range of subject matter and there’s something for everyone, but I see the woman’s point. I do a lot of browsing for my “first line/paragraph posts. When I walk into a Barnes and Noble or the now mostly defunct Borders, their YA display is almost all dystopian and paranormal. You will see no Tamora Pierce or Meg Cabot or Lisa Yee prominently displayed (unless Lisa has just been there.) Bookstore displays I have seen in the past two years have been very “one theme”. I think that’s a pity.

  28. Barbara Watson on June 13, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    >I appreciate you sharing your parent heart with us. During those three paragraphs, I nodded and nodded. Being aware, involved, and open to discussion about anything is essential.

  29. Kristin Laughtin on June 13, 2011 at 3:19 PM

    >Your assessment is well-balanced and rational and indicates you know the realities of life in general, life for teens, how the publishing world works, and how to be a good parent. I agree completely. The darkness in YA fiction isn’t coming from nowhere, but there is lighter and happier stuff aplenty if you look for longer than two seconds.

  30. Katy McKenna on June 13, 2011 at 2:39 PM

    >Is it possible that adult women need beaucoup numbers of Amish books to recover from all the oversexed, violent, dark, and depressing volumes read in their formative years? 🙂

  31. Michael K. Reynolds on June 13, 2011 at 2:30 PM

    >With the caveat that I haven’t read the article you’re referring to nor any of the 15,000 Tweets that ensued I can say that I disagree with the premise of your argument.The publishing industry with its editors, agents, sales & marketing folks do have their hands heavy on the steering wheel of what’s available. I think the Amish fad is one clear example. Yes…the Amish are lovely folk…but enough already.Recently, it really seems the logic follows that being in a rut is the most sensible and profitable approach. That may be in fact true, and wise strategy in a down market, but to say publishers have little influence over the preponderance of dark themes doesn’t fly for me. It saddens me that my teenage girls are growing up in an age where vampires, werewolves and zombie love is called compelling literature. I for one believe our writing community and the Christian publishing industry can and should do better for our young people.

  32. Beth on June 13, 2011 at 1:30 PM

    >With my kids, I’ve taught them that they need to guard the garden of their heart. This means there are some materials that they won’t want to put into it, because everything is a seed which will affect a person in some way. We talk openly about what is in books, and sometimes I ask them to wait until they’re older to read certain content. I also tell them why it might be better to wait until they read a book.

  33. Katy McKenna on June 13, 2011 at 1:21 PM

    >Rachelle, YES!! The Gallagher Girls Series. Now, see, those are books I could really get behind. And I can’t wait to read Lisa’s books, about which I’ve only heard great things—what could be bad about traveling through time and arriving at cute Italian guys? I admit I have not (yet) read much current YA, but I thoroughly enjoyed Elizabeth Fixmer’s “Saint Training.” It’s about the oldest child (age 12) in a large Catholic family in the 1960s, who can’t stand her lot in life. She strikes up a correspondence with the Mother Superior of a convent in order to learn what she must do to be saintly enough to escape her crazy family life. It’s funny, plus deals with issues like abortion, marriages on the edge, and dysfunctional relationships. My much younger sister, a middle school writing teacher who is current with YA trends, also praised it. Thanks for verifying that I was indeed speaking favorably about the Gallagher Girls series. I managed to get out of the store without writing down the titles, but I truly am going to read them. And probably buy them for my 13-year-old niece, whom I did not invent for the sake of my experiment! 🙂

  34. Rachelle on June 13, 2011 at 1:04 PM

    >Katy McKenna: Sounds like you found Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series, which I highly recommend. Both my girls have read all four books in the series and love them! Ally writes very clean and yet very adventurous and suspenseful.Lisa T. Bergren’s new River of Time series, “Waterfall” and “Cascade” are AMAZING. My 14 yo says they’re the best books she’s ever read.

  35. Melissa on June 13, 2011 at 1:02 PM

    >What do I think? I think that someone needs to interview a behavioral specialist who works with children for these types of articles. Really, we can say what we will about YA, but we’re not professionals. I would like to see one article in which a child psychologist weighed in on the matter. I do agree, however, that it’s ultimate the adult’s responsibility to vet the books that their kids are reading. After I read a “dark” YA book about cutting that really upset me, my parents carefully vetted my reading material. But, I could read “Lolita” when I was 13 – I loved literary fiction, and this was a creative way to learn about how child predators think. Violent books like “Helter Skelter” and those about tweens and teens with mental illness (those were the ones that affected me) were off limits. It depends on the child. Each one will be able to tolerate different things.

  36. Samuel on June 13, 2011 at 12:37 PM

    >I think dark writing can be more valuable and poignant and all that.. but I do think that there is enough ugliness in the world that if I were writing a YA novel I would be more keen on writing something that is ultimately beautiful, even if it has some dark edges. While all the points in this blog are valid, I wonder if some of the “dark trend” points to a lot of writers on a sellout bandwagon, more interested in cashing in then they are in writing something that actually edifies this impressionable age group or helps them somehow. You cannot legislate the hearts and minds of people, and it is certainly a free country. Having said that, catering so directly to what could be looked at as long-term cultural or societal decline could be considered irresponsible, on an individual level. Therefore, I will abstain from contributing in a potentially negative fashion to our youth. Vote your conscience, people.if you have one.

  37. Katy McKenna on June 13, 2011 at 12:16 PM

    >The author of the original article for WSJ is indeed a long-time and almost-always favorable reviewer of children’s and YA books. Here is another author’s defense of her, which I find compelling.http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/in-defense-of-meghan-cox-gurdon-childrens-book-reviewer/

  38. Bridgette Booth on June 13, 2011 at 12:02 PM

    >Excellent post, Rachelle. I hope your ideas about a rating system take root because that would be an invaluable tool for book buyers!After reading some of the responses to the WSJ article I have wondered if Ms. Cox Gurdon has expressed exactly what many other adults think about YA when they first re-experience it? Many books *are* shocking to those people who haven’t read YA and seen the changes over the years. (I know “darker” books are not new, but the current “darker” book themes are a great deal more visible than they were during my bookstore days when I well remember struggling to find “intense” books for a few of my teen customers.)My theory is that current YA books are shocking because non-YA readers see a person reading a book and thinks, “Yeah! He’s reading!” without considering the book’s content. It’s not until they are shopping for a gift (as the mother in the WSJ article was) or browsing a book left on a table by a child or grandchild that they glimpse the changes and are forced to confront their assumptions about books and/or YA.Whereas if a person sees a teen wearing ear buds then few folks will think “Oh, yeah! He’s listening to music!” If the ear buds come off and “dark” music blares out, then whatever dismay is felt, it is directed towards the teen’s choice of music, not at the shock of learning that “dark” music exists. Although the book community is miffed at Cox-Gurdon’s appraisal, I believe her article is an example of what many adult non-YA readers actually experience when he or she discovers that YA is a diverse genre dealing with the grittiness of life.

  39. Katy McKenna on June 13, 2011 at 11:16 AM

    >I just went into B&N on a mission to find a novel for my 13-year-old niece. A man was at the help desk, and when I asked for recommendations of an author who was writing something besides vampire, incest, suicide, etc, he referred me to another employee who enjoys YA fiction. She was really helpful and knowledgeable. She took me to the newly revamped (ha!) section, which is now divided into Paranormal/Adventure and other Fiction. (Which, of course, is not to say that I wouldn’t consider the stuff in the first category and would be happy with the stuff in the second….) Then she pulled out books by authors she felt met my specs, and they did. In fact, I might have to read the story about the girl in the private school for spies-in-training (just a regular school as far as those on the outside know….) who falls for a guy, one who can never learn about her spy aspirations. She has almost no social skills, though she is brilliant, which makes the story funny–and appealing. At any rate, there were six full bookcases of paranormal, and four full cases of other fiction. Plenty of choices, though of course parental involvement still needed.

  40. staceyoneale on June 13, 2011 at 11:08 AM

    >Fantastic post. I totally agree.

  41. Kathryn Packer Roberts on June 13, 2011 at 10:54 AM

    >I agree and disagree here. I don’t think that ‘evil’ in books is okay for some and not for others. Either it’s okay, or it crosses the line. I do agree that parents need to be involved. But as a parent, and former teen, I know that books can be deceiving and will get into teens hands anyway. For example, you can read the first chapter and synopsis and have NO idea what is to come later on in the story, that will be both dark and inapropriate. So, yes, I think there should be a rating system. Not like that of movies. I think we need to know before hand what kinds of themes are in a book so that we can make the right decisions. TELL us what kinds of things take place or are discussed (if serious) and then let the general public decide if that’s what they want to read. Then a parent can say to their teen, ‘please watch out for such and such books’ etc. If they do it in games and movies, they definitely need it in books.

  42. Dewdrop on June 13, 2011 at 10:29 AM

    >While I agree with your post, I think your suggestion for rating books [“Best for age 12-13” or “14-15” or “16-17”] is very limiting. I myself enjoy reading books meant for kids aged 12 or so. What about a system of rating something like “12 and above?” I think publishers will like it more. 😀

  43. Sharon A. Lavy on June 13, 2011 at 10:11 AM

    >I am not sure why it is so controversial to make books as to the age of the target audience. The authors have to know the age of the target audience when they write the story.It’s not like other than the expected target audience read any book genre. But it would be nice to know what to expect form the book by the age rating.It would be a learning process of course.

  44. Timothy Fish on June 13, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    >“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things.”I firmly believe that the things we meditate on influences how we act and think. I also firmly believe that it is a parent’s responsibility to guide their children toward those things that edify. But as children grow, they must have more and more freedom to choose or they won’t know how to make the right decisions when they move out.I partly think it depends on how we define “dark” as to whether or not dark fiction can edify or not. If “dark” is anything that talks about incest, cutting, rape, adultery, homosexuality, fornication, witchcraft, murder etc. then we’d have to classify the Holy Bible as dark because it covers those topics on every page. And yet, I don’t see the Bible as dark because though it talks extensively about those topics, it offer hope to those who are caught up in those things. Dark or not, stories that glorify sin are not appropriate for teenagers. It would be nice to think that parents are teaching their children to stay away from those things, but these days, many people see nothing wrong with fornication and there are stories out there that glorify it as the ideal, rather than pointing out the problems it causes. If those are the stories children are being encouraged to read, they will find out that fornication is a thing to be avoided after it is too late. I don’t really like the idea of a rating system, but I do like the idea of parents knowing what their children are reading and being proactive in teaching them the difference between right and wrong.

  45. Taz on June 13, 2011 at 9:49 AM

    >As a parent of two young impressionables, I definitely put my foot down and tell them what they can and can’t watch or read, and I do this in light of the day that will come when they make their own decisions, and they know I’m not being overbearing or playing the mean mother card. They understand it’s us as parents training what we’ve been blessed to have in the way they should go.I also believe that there are some things that simply don’t need to be written about no matter what society we live in and what goes on inside it.Call me simplistic, but the battle begins on the mind, and for some of us more than others, we need to pay attention to thinking about whatever is “pure and lovely” in order to honour God, and not to make some money out of an idea that might sell. If someone’s going to write a book and put it out there, they’d better be sure it’s one God would be happy with them writing because He’s the one they’ll answer to (as will the reader), not the publisher.There is so much fantastic YA stuff out there, and I will happily point my kids in that direction. Conversely, I have a close friend who walks the darker side of life in a crime fighting sense, and her conscience is by no means weak. Watch her train her own kids, however, and she will be steering them clear of what she ahs to deal with as much as possible.

  46. Jaime Wright on June 13, 2011 at 9:49 AM

    >I’ll all for the “Rating system”. I’ve been a youth leader for 17 years and read books thoroughly before recommending any simply because all parents have diffferent ideas as to what is appropriate – even within CBA. The best one I ever found was Francine Rivers “Redeeming Love” – at the time, I hadn’t read it and when I opened it, this particular copy had a foreward in it, rating it as a PG-13. FANTASTIC!!I loaned it to a 16 year old girl once and pointed the rating out first – she got her mother’s approval and the responsibility was off my shoulders.

  47. Dana Elmendorf on June 13, 2011 at 9:47 AM

    >As always I love hearing your thoughts. I think a rating system would be very beneficial but who governs that is the question. No matter what approach, you can’t please everyone and you will always have the naysayers. What I love about most of the posts I have read on the subject is how logical, intelligent, and well thought out they were written, as oppose to the original article itself. Again thanks for sharing yours.

  48. Suze on June 13, 2011 at 9:41 AM

    >As far as putting target age groups on the backs of all children’s books, I would love it. It would help me buy age-appropriate gifts without having to do a ton of research. I have been longing for that.

  49. Anna Zagar on June 13, 2011 at 9:39 AM

    >Censorship is the job of the parent, not of the publishing industry. The pub industry is a business and should continue to produce what keeps them in business. Also, YA spans a lot wider spectrum than age 12 to 17 nowadays…

  50. M. R. Pursselley on June 13, 2011 at 9:29 AM

    >I am 100% in favor of parents reading books before allowing their young kids to read them, and censoring books that they feel are inappropriate. That being said, I also believe that they should be instilling moral standards in their children, enabling them to make wise choices on their own as they get older.I do believe that children should be aware of the existence of darkness and evil in the world, otherwise they won’t be able to deal with it when they actually confront it face-to-face. However, they should not be taught to embrace it, as I think much of the ‘mainstream’ fiction of today probably does (disagree with me if you want, but if sleeping with a vampire doesn’t count as embracing the darkness, I don’t know what does). As Christians especially, we are commanded to fill our hearts and minds with what is “pure, honest, lovely, and of good report” (Philippians 4:8)In regards to the idea of a rating system for books, I agree that such a system would quickly lead to laws banning the sale of certain ratings to certain groups of people. While the motive behind such a law may be good, it is still a violation of our First-Amendment rights as Americans. People should be responsible enough to choose their own entertainment for themselves without the government intervening.Lastly, regarding Ms. Cox Gurdon’s slam of the publishing industry, ‘bulldozing’ darkness and misery into teens’ lives: if she is concerned about young people being forced to face darkness and depravity at young ages, why doesn’t she address the public school system–where children really don’t have a choice about what they hear–where they are taught about drugs, racism, sex, and violence as kindergartners? The vast majority of today’s writers are products of this system, so today’s trends in fiction should come as no surprise. (For the record, many excellent Christian writers have been educated in the public school system as well, I understand that. But they are the exception, not the rule.)I’m not denying the fact that there is a problem. But let’s deal with the source of the problem, not the symptoms.Thanks once again for a fantastic post and great insights, Rachelle!

  51. Anna on June 13, 2011 at 9:05 AM

    >This was a well-reasoned post. I especially liked your argument on discernment. That seems to be a key element that both the original article and bloggers have missed. Thanks for your post.

  52. Anonymous on June 13, 2011 at 9:03 AM

    >What I think, Rachelle, is that if all people who called themselves Christians were as rational and reasonable about the mainstream culture as you are, I wouldn't get so upset at 'em.

    The darkness of YA bothers me. I don't like going to B & N and seeing the "Teen" section a mass of black covers with spooky pix on them. But I think what's ultimately important is that the books themselves be life-affirming… do they confront the dark, or do they actually embrace it? The latter's a problem.

    Regina, at our library the Christian books have a cross on them. Indeed I consider it that much of the library (a good quarter of the fiction section) marked as off-limits. I have read some Christian books that I enjoyed, but they were not recent. They predated the evangelical/political identification of Christianity of the last 30 years, which alienated so many of us.

  53. MJR on June 13, 2011 at 8:52 AM

    >I agree, yet a friend of mine complained recently that her daughter was tired of all the YA books about angst, death, sex, divorce, abuse etc and wasn't a vampire lover either. I think eventually she decided to skip YA books altogether and read adult books. I worked in children's publishing but haven't really kept up with YA since I left. Last summer I read some popular YA novels and was shocked at how violent they were–yet they were very well written. Still, I wouldn't hand these novels over to a teen (or even to adults–unless they were partial to gory books).

  54. Anne Lang Bundy on June 13, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    >Like you, I have difficulty understanding why movies and video games carry ratings, but any suggestion that books carry ratings is met with objection. I use movie ratings as a guide for not only what my kids watch, but to help me determine what I want to watch for myself. I would find book ratings, even within CBA, most helpful.

  55. Katy McKenna on June 13, 2011 at 8:41 AM

    >My emotional growth must have been severely stunted somewhere along the way. Why is it that I am still (at age 57) not "mature" enough to handle gratuitous sex, violence, and dark themes (I read "The Road," for example, but cannot get through the movie. Just. Can't.), but imagine that most 14 year olds ARE that mature? I wonder if somewhere along the way we've mistaken desensitization for maturity. I just wonder, that's all.

  56. Bruce H. Johnson on June 13, 2011 at 8:33 AM

    >Heck, I wish my kids had been readers, YA or otherwise. They're all "grown up" now in their late 20's and still don't read. They grew up with their mother, who is generally a non-reader (fiction, at least).

    I'd much rather a kid read "dark" stuff and become aware that such circumstances or people do or might exist than to get dumped into the middle of a similar situation and haven't the foggiest idea even what is going on. "What is a cereal killer, Daddy?"

    We can rant about the "vast wasteland" of TV (from my long-ago youth) and it's still probably as true today. The "reality" shows are pretty explicit even if not about sex.

    A fiction story should deliver a powerful emotional experience. The author and reader have an agreement for a suspension of disbelief. However, dangerous situations, shady characters, non-caring/hostile parents, or pretty much anything you could find in a YA story are quite probably understating real life. Every once in a while we see a news story which is so far beyond some of these things we couldn't have imagined it. Even taken with lots of salt and the ability of the news media to get facts right, there is evil and bad actions going on in real life.

    At least fantasy/SciFi/paranormal are generally understood to be un-real. However, to communicate to the reader, many actions, circumstances, reactions, etc., have to resonate (be somewhat real) to the reader.

    Fiction is a pretty safe way of experiencing something you wouldn’t want happen to you. An “adventure” happens to someone else far away; not next door. Except every once in a while there is a monster living next door. Just the fact of reading a fiction story about a monster might make a YA or anyone else more aware of the possibility.

    It’s a jungle out there in real life and only the tigers survive — and they have a hard time. Mama tiger teaches the cubs what she can and turns them loose. Bet there are other animals that prey on tiger cubs; Mama better learn them a bit about them.

  57. Sharon A. Lavy on June 13, 2011 at 8:27 AM

    >Oh, dear, Kelly. I read the VC Andrews books too. Were they considered YA? I did get hooked on them and was glad to finally just quit reading them. I don't think I still had children at home when I read them.

  58. Kelly Combs on June 13, 2011 at 8:20 AM

    >p.s. I don't know if anyone remembers the V C Andrews books of my youth, but looking back I can't believe my mom let me read them! They were horrible and very dark. And, overall I turned out okay, and don't lock my kids in the attic (or anywhere else).

    So, I guess the same will be true of the kids today. 🙂

  59. Cynthia Herron on June 13, 2011 at 8:17 AM

    >This is absolutely a fantastic post, Rachelle! About the rating system: I think it just makes great sense. While our daughter reads well beyond her years at the upper high school level, it would be nice to have a system in place to help me guide her in maybe making a different choice or, perhaps, a wiser choice when selecting a book.

    Another thing. I remember when two well-known (bestselling) series came out by two outstanding young adult authors. Both had magical and otherworldy elements. Both immediately resonated with youngsters. I read one of the series and found the writing to be superb and the story captivating. While it's certainly not what I write or normally even read, I couldn't dismiss this author's work as inappropriate either. (I guess if I could, I'd have to throw out "The Wizard of Oz", "Snow White", or even my dog-eared "Cinderella.")

    Now, with that being said, I realize we live in a society where desensitization to the horrific is the norm. It can sometimes be a fine line to walk. That's why God gives us free will and why He should be our ultimate guide when choosing reading material. I, myself, draw the line at anything that profanes my Savior's name or explores acts of gratuitous violence. Personal choice, personal conviction.

  60. Kelly Combs on June 13, 2011 at 8:16 AM

    >I haven't read her article, but on the subject in general I am conflicted. I do believe that exposure to "dark" material does de-sensitize our youth.

    It's like the frog in the hot pot story. A frog dropped in a hot pot of water will jump out. But if you put a frog in a pot of cool water and slowly heat it up, the frog will die, never aware of the subtle change in temperature.

    TV seems worse. All the reality TV shows depict a "reality" I am totally unfamiliar with. Do "real housewives" act this way? None of them that I know do. (And I am as "real" of a housewife as the come!) But I digress…

    Ultimately, as you stated, it is a parent's job to guide their children, and as you do, use the dark as a teaching tool to shed light.

  61. Katy McKenna on June 13, 2011 at 7:51 AM

    >I think a rating system might be useful at this point. I am also hugely in favor of parental censorship. Looking back, I have no regrets that when my kids (now 32, 29, and 26) were YA readers, I censored myself and kept far away from their books. 🙂

    Having just read the WSJ article for the first time this morning, I did not find the author to be hysterical–but then again, I'm a bit high strung myself. She was identified as someone who writes occasionally for the newspaper on the subject of children's literature, so it doesn't seem that she's a journalist who got handed a topic with which she's unfamiliar.

    Glad you addressed this, Rachelle. Thanks for a fascinating discussion!

  62. Khanada on June 13, 2011 at 7:46 AM

    >Very well said, Rachelle. That article bothered me a lot. As an opinion piece, I would simply disagree – but it didn't say opinion anywhere on it. I expected better from the WSJ.

    I do think that some teens seek out such dark fare simply because they feel safe. I know that's how it was for me. As an adult, I can't read the same sort of things I would seek out as a teen.

    I felt bad for the woman in the piece and couldn't figure out why in the world a B&N employee wouldn't recommend middle grade for a 13-year old. But I think it says more about B&N in that particular location rather than the world of YA lit.

  63. Wendy Paine Miller on June 13, 2011 at 7:38 AM

    >Cheering over your role of the parent paragraphs. I love that you are engaging in conversation with your girls and helping them process. This is parenting gold!

    I pray I teach my girls to discern. I stand as the rating system for now.

    Fascinating conversation about YA as I’m a little in the dark about the genre anyway. My girls are growing up fast… time to start learning more about this exploding genre.
    ~ Wendy

  64. Richard on June 13, 2011 at 7:32 AM

    >Well writen post, and learning something is always a big plus. Richard from the Amish settlement of Lebanon,Pa

  65. Laura Pauling on June 13, 2011 at 7:22 AM

    >As a parent, I wouldn't mind some kind of indication on a book about how graphic the sex or violence is. A lot of young kids who are advanced readers, read up; and some of them aren't ready for that kind of stuff. But some are. It would be nice to know when buying gifts for people. But I can understand why people react the way they do to that. They don't want the label to stop readers from reading or buying their book.

  66. Regina Jennings on June 13, 2011 at 7:15 AM

    >I find it interesting in our local library that the only books that have identifying labels are Sci-Fi and Christian. (Love the cheesy looking picture of Jesus they stick on the spines). Frankly it bothers me that my books will have a sticker on them that will keep a substantial number of patrons from giving them a try.

  67. Heather Sunseri on June 13, 2011 at 7:09 AM

    >Fantastic response, Rachelle, to an article that obviously hit nerves in many.

    One of the thoughts that kept going through my mind while reading the WSJ article was "Wow, what a knock against the employees of B&N." Where was the B&N employee who could have easily pointed the book-seeking lady in the direction of a huge assortment of lighter reads.

    For me the article was simply an uninformed journalist who drew an assignment she wasn't prepared to handle fairly. She only skimmed a surface of an obviously deep-rooted subject for many. If she didn't expect the article to draw such a big response, I kind of feel sorry for her.

  68. Sue Harrison on June 13, 2011 at 6:59 AM

    >Thank you for the insightful post, Rachelle. One opinion:

    1. If I were a publisher of YA, I'd establish my own rating system for the books I published.

    One question:

    1. How are upbeat (not giddy or silly) empowering YA novels selling? (I think Hunger Games et. al. are empowering but I don't think they're upbeat.)

  69. S.P. Bowers on June 13, 2011 at 6:42 AM

    >You said exactly what was on my mind.

    Personally I don't believe in censorship but I do believe in parents being involved in their children's reading.

  70. Thesis Writing on June 13, 2011 at 6:40 AM

    >This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free.. I enjoy seeing websites that understand the value of providing a resource for free.. I truly loved reading your post..

  71. Sharon A. Lavy on June 13, 2011 at 6:16 AM

    >I am not mature enough to read some of the darker stories.

  72. athanasius on June 13, 2011 at 6:13 AM

    >Reading your post reminds me of the early reactions to Harry Potter which is well-accepted by many who first opposed the series even though the themes became darker with time.

    Let's also not forget that many classics such as Grimm's Fairy Tales defined exactly what "grim" means.

    It is the responsibility of parents to walk and guide their children through the dark forests whether they be literal or literary.

  73. Jimmie Hammel on June 13, 2011 at 5:11 AM

    >I think that the themes in YA today aren't any darker than they have been for the past thirty years. V. C. Andrews was the most popular YA author of my generation. All of her early work contains incest or child molestation.
    Even children's stories are dark. Hell, Disney is dark. Snow White is poisoned into a coma by an evil witch. Cinderella's real parents die and leave her in the care of a stepmother who hates her. Even Roald Dahl wrote some doozies. Think of all the bad things that happened to the nasty children who made it into the chocolate factory. Matilda is despised by her own parents, made to stand in an upright coffin filled with broken glass and nails by her principal. That same principal physically abuses all the little children at her school.
    What dark, adult, themes are we supposed to be protecting them from?

  74. Elizabeth May on June 13, 2011 at 5:02 AM

    >I really love what you've said here, Rachelle. It's very succinctly put, and I really love seeing this from the perspective of a parent whose children are of age to read YA.

    As for a rating system, I do agree to an extent. I think my main concern is whether or not implementing a rating system on books would eventually disallow certain purchases for minors, just like with movies. Namely: would the rating system extend to adult novels (an M rating, for Mature, as an example), and would those under 17 be able to purchase a "mature" novel? Someone under 17 cannot see a Rated R movie in the theatre now. They cannot buy a Rated M video game. I don't know if I can condone that same attitude toward books. When I was a teen, I read up. I read adult. I coveted Anne Rice and Julia Quinn. I don't mind the a content label on the back of a book (IE: strong language, ect), but a rating system similar to that of the MPAA might end up being more trouble than it's worth.

  75. Brigid Kemmerer on June 13, 2011 at 4:56 AM

    >Great post! It's nice to hear an industry "insider" weigh in.

    In regards to the age ranges, I usually read the pro reviews (SLJ and PW) on Amazon, because they include a suggested age range, e.g. "Grade 9 and up" or "16+") I find those very helpful.

    Finally, if your daughter likes realism in her reading, especially about current issues, I'd like to suggest The Things a Brother Knows, about a teen boy whose brother comes home from the war and is a changed man. The horror is very subtle (and well handled since it's through the eyes of the brother who wasn't at war), and the book overall is exceptional. You might want to take a look.

  76. Rosemary Gemmell on June 13, 2011 at 3:44 AM

    >Very interesting post, as is the issue it raises. My grown-up daughter is writing a YA book (the first 7000 words won a recent competition) which is inspired by troubling real events in young people's lives some years ago. But she is using her imagination to fictionalise the posible reasons behind it and is completely aware of writing it in a responsible manner for the intended readers.

    My own first 'children's' novel is being published next March and is being classed by the publisher as a Tween novel (for 10-14 years) which I think is an excellent idea. This ensures parents and young people know that it doesn't contain anything too dark for the age group.

  77. Adam Heine on June 13, 2011 at 2:32 AM

    >TOTALLY agree! Especially about the rating system. I know people are afraid that if books are rated, they will start being banned. I can appreciate that, but really, books get banned already. Why not give teens and parents a better way to make informed decisions?

  78. Jennie on June 13, 2011 at 1:31 AM

    >So well said! I agree. Just like Catherine said, the reason there are some dark themes is because these kids experience dark times. I think it's an awesome tool and in reading these books, maybe these kids don't feel so alone with the dark things they pass through.

  79. Catherine on June 13, 2011 at 1:23 AM

    >The YA field is so broad that trying to fit it into one definition, such as "dark" seems unrealistic to me. Some of the YA books are darker, and some are not.

    There's also going to be some angst and emotions, because these are the tasks that kids these ages are going through. For literature to be written for them, it needs to meet them where they live.

    That being said, it's really the parents' responsibility to set the boundaries on their children's reading, especially since they know the individual child's maturity level and what they're ready for far better than a writer could

  80. Tana Adams on June 13, 2011 at 1:13 AM

    >Great and wise answers! I think to each his own and buyer beware, per usual. =)

  81. Brooke on June 13, 2011 at 12:58 AM

    >Great post and I wholeheartedly agree.

  82. Carole on June 13, 2011 at 12:51 AM

    >I could not agree more! As an aspiring YA author, I appreciate this blog post! Thank you!

  83. *Andye* on June 13, 2011 at 12:46 AM

    >Fantastic post!! I agree so much!